A gladiator’s helmet left behind in the ruins of Pompeii is the centrepiece of an exhibition to be unveiled in Melbourne today. The 2,000-year-old bronze helmet is one of 250 items brought together at the Melbourne Museum to illustrate life in the ancient city.
Museum manager Brett Dunlop says the helmet survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and was recovered 200 years ago. ‘A large number of gladiators’ helmets and shin guards and shoulder guards were found in what was most likely a storeroom in the gymnasium area,’ he said. ‘Most definitely the gladiators who were able to would have fled away when the volcano was erupting and a large number of pieces of their equipment were left behind.’
The helmet would have been worn by ‘murmillo’, a type of gladiator during the Roman Imperial age. The distinguishing feature of the murmillo was the high crest of his helmet which, together with its broad rim, was shaped somewhat like a fish. The murmillo took his name from this fish-shaped helmet; the word comes from the Greek word for a type of saltwater fish.
Otherwise, he wore a loincloth, belt, short greaves on the lower parts of his legs, a linen arm protector to protect his right arm, and the curved rectangular shield of the Roman legionary. He also carried the legionary’s short, straight sword, or gladius, from which gladiators derived their name.
The murmillo usually fought gladiators styled after ancient Greek fighters, with whom he shared some of the same equipment (notably arm guards and greaves).
A galea was a Roman soldier’s helmet. Some gladiators, myrmillones, also wore a bronze galea with a face mask and a decoration, often a fish on its crest. The exact form or design of the helmet varied significantly over time, between differing unit types, and also between individual examples – pre-industrial production was by hand – so it is not certain to what degree there was any standardization even under the Roman Empire.